Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet

The Australian virologist and physician Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1899-1985) made important contributions to virology, immunology, and human biology.

On Sept. 3, 1899, F. Macfarlane Burnet was born in the country town of Traralgon. He was a naturalist at heart, wandering in the bush to study animals, birds, and insects. After graduating as a doctor of medicine from Melbourne University in 1922, he studied staphylococcal infections at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne. He worked at the institute for 41 years, becoming director in 1942.

In 1930 Burnet discovered the existence of multiple strains of the poliomyelitis virus, essential knowledge for the production of vaccine. While visiting Sir Henry Dale in London in 1931, he observed the discovery of the influenza virus and mastered the developing-chick-embryo technique for virus culture. Returning to Australia in 1932, Burnet and his colleagues were the first to make influenza virus vaccine by the egg technique. In 1936 they discovered that Q fever, an infection in slaughter house workers, which had a worldwide distribution in humans, cattle, and sheep, was caused by a rickettsial organism. They also discovered, in 1952, the virus that causes the brain disease Murray Valley encephalitis, finding that it was carried by migrating birds from New Guinea and transmitted by mosquitoes to man.

Burnet possessed an insatiable desire to explore the unknown. He often thought of the inadequately explored field of immunology and theorized that at birth a person learned to tolerate his or her own tissues ("self") and to reject foreign tissues ("not-self"). A failure by a person to tolerate his or her own tissues might be produced by a freak mutation in the antibody-producing system, and a person would then attack his or her own organs to produce autoimmune disease. To prove these beliefs, in 1957 Burnet turned his researches to immunology with immediate success. His findings stimulated worldwide research in autoimmune disease. In 1960 he received the Nobel Prize for work on immunological tolerance.

In 1964 Burnet retired to write and lecture. From 1965 to 1969 he served as the president of the Australian Academy of Science. In 1969 he was made knight commander of the British Empire. That same year, he was named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was made a Knight of the Order of Australia in 1978. Burnet's published works during this period included the books Immunology, Aging, and Cancer (1976) and Endurance of Life (1978). His own productive life came to an end on August 31, 1985, when he died of cancer in Melbourne.

On his seventieth birthday Burnet's disciples proclaimed him a charming colleague and a great scientist who had made a major contribution to the good of humankind. On that day Burnet concluded, "The real objective today is to use the ability of men and women … to devise ways by which patterns of behavior, laid down in a million years, can be modified—tricked and twisted if necessary—to allow tolerable human existence in a crowded world."


Further Reading on Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet

Burnet's life and work are delightfully described in his Changing Patterns: An Atypical Autobiography (1968); his studies in immunology are treated in his Self and Not-Self: Cellular Immunology (1969). Sarah R. Riedman and Elton T. Gustafson, Portraits of Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology (1963), includes a discussion of Burnet. A short biography and his Nobel lecture is in the Nobel Foundation, Physiology or Medicine: Nobel Lectures, Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies (3 vols., 1964-1967). Burnet's obituary appeared in The Lancet on 14 September 1985. A more recent biography is Frank Fenner, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Scientist and Thinker (1987).